Nick Offerman does not “believe” in refunds, a fact I learned shortly after handing him an $8,000 check for what was advertised as a “practical acting class” that turned out to be a course on canoe building. Known primarily for his role as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, what most people don’t realize is that Nick is also an accomplished woodworker and once showed his penis in an episode of Dead Wood. “This is my shop,” he said proudly as he walked me around the space and described its tools and the mechanics of its complex dust collection system that he designed himself. “We’re going to be thinking a lot about dust as we build this canoe together.” I was confused.
“I’m sorry, did you say we are going to be building a canoe? I thought this was an acting class.”
“Son, there isn’t much you can’t learn about life by building a canoe,” he told me before getting back to a surprisingly long conversation about dust and letting me know about his strict no refund philosophy. “A transaction shouldn’t linger. It’s effete,” he said before getting back to dust management which he believes is essential.
“How will building a canoe help me develop practical acting skills?” I asked, to which the Dead Wood penis actor told me that finding success in Hollywood was unlikely given my height and face and that learning a craft such as canoe building would allow me to earn an honest living while my more grandiose dreams fail. “What could be more practical advice for an actor with your build and hairline than that?”
I wasn’t convinced and had no use for a canoe, but I had already paid and didn’t have much else going on in my life, so for the next 8-weeks I spent every evening in Nick’s workshop honing the skills I would need to become a great thespian and intermediate wood craftsmen.
“The first question one must ask when building a canoe is what type of wood to use,” Nick told me during our first lesson. In thinking about the question, I felt I understood how acting and woodworking complimented each other and figured Nick was laying the framework for an eventual Karate Kid style revelation where the incremental skills I develop through woodworking come together into a full repertoire of the talents necessary to make it in Hollywood.
“So, picking out the right wood is sort of like deciding on the right part to take as an actor?” I asked, but was told not to read too much into what he was saying.
“No. The best wood to use for a canoe is red cedar. And the best part for you to take at this point in your acting career is anything you are offered, even if they ask you to show your penis. It’s only after you have developed your craft that you can experiment with mahogany and other hardwoods or can turn down roles that require an uncomfortable amount of nudity. Remember, you’re desperate, and red cedar is a desperate wood for desperate people.”
During our first week together I learned the basics of canoe building and that I shouldn’t ask Nick Offerman about his personal or professional life while in his shop. “A woodshop is not a place for casual conversation,” he told me before pivoting into an explanation on the differences between a jointer and a planer. “A jointer is used to flatten the face of a piece of wood and square up one edge and a planer is used to make the second face flat and parallel to the first,” he’d tell me over and over but I still didn’t understand the difference.
“What’s not to understand?” Nick would yell, letting me know that he was disappointed in my progress and that normally such incompetence in a woodshop would be punished by requiring me to sweep the dust from the floor, but that since his dust collection system was so efficient and there was nothing to sweep I should just stand in the corner as he demonstrates the proper way to shape the canoe’s inner stem. “Just go hand me my spokeshave,” he told me but I didn’t know what that was. “And you expect to make it as an actor?” he scoffed.
Over the next several weeks I tried to make myself useful and for the most part, stayed out of Nick’s way as he silently measured out and cut the planks for the canoe. The only bright spot during this period was when Nick’s wife, Megan Mullally would come into the shop on occasion. I had read that Megan had discovered Bill Hader and, being impressed by his impressions, recommended him to Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live. Since I didn’t feel like Nick’s lessons would lead me to succeed as an actor, I decided to greet Megan in a variety of accents (cockney, racist Indian, John Malkovich) to demonstrate that I was also ready for Saturday Night Live and an introduction to Lorne. But she would just politely smiled at me before leaving. “I know what you’re doing and it won’t work,” Nick finally told me after I told Megan to “Kiss My Grits” in my best southern accent. I fucking hate woodworking.
Nick was on edge during our last week together and feeling stressed by what would be an intensive two-days of laminating the wood for the boat’s hull. I was in charge of managing and attaching the staples and clamps. As I worked through the evening securing the glued wood into its frame Nick finally paid me a compliment.
“That’s a nice amount of pressure you got there,” he said of my clamp work. “When you’re in a woodshop you’re going to sometimes want to tighten the clamp as much as possible, but you shouldn’t because it could damage the face of the wood. Just let the glue do the work and be patient,” he said.
“Thanks.” It was the first nice thing he said to me in weeks.
“The same is true when going out on an audition. You’re going to want to give the reading your all, but sometimes the best reading requires a little less. It’s more important to give an even performance and let the words do the work,” he said as he scraped away the glue squeeze.
“Holy shit, it’s happening. He’s relating acting to canoe building. He’s Miyagi and I’m LaRusso,” I thought to myself, fully prepared to discover all of the fine acting skills I had subconsciously learned over the last six weeks, but it never came. Our last week together mostly involved the two of us silently planing and sanding the canoe and applying several coats of varnish to the piece. On our last day together we installed the canoe’s seat and yoke and built a pair of paddles.
“Well, I think this is a fine canoe. You should be proud,” Nick told me as we admired the boat we built.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, horrified that I called him Dad, but to be honest a bit surprised I hadn’t done so sooner. “I’m sorry–” I said, but he told me not to worry about it. “It happens in a woodshop.”
As I packed up my things and prepared to leave Nick’s shop for the last time I felt a level of self-satisfaction that I had never experienced before. I know I wouldn’t be able to build a canoe of this quality on my own, but was happy I could now appreciate the energy and skill that goes into building something from the ground up. I thanked Nick for the experience and shook his hand.
“I hope you feel like you learned something,” he said. I told him that I did and that while the exact relationship between canoe building and comedic acting felt somewhat attenuated and that I believed his advertisement could have been less misleading, that I felt I had gotten my money’s worth.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Nick said. “You know, acting is just like any skill. You need to take it seriously if you want to do it professionally. Are you sure you’re ready to dedicate yourself to it?” he asked. I told him I was.
“Good. Well, I think I know of a part for you, if you want it.” It was happening, I couldn’t believe it. “Yeah, of course, I’ll take anything,” I told him, eager to hear about the role. “I’m red cedar.”
“I’m glad to hear that, son,” said Nick. “Because the part does require you to show an awful lot of your penis.”
Nick Offerman’s Woodshop is located in Los Angeles. Acting classes are available to aspiring woodworkers who are comfortable with gratuitous on-camera nudity.